By Michael R. Moser
Being the victim of a crime leaves one with the sense of being violated on many levels. The justice system can be intimidating — even traumatic — for those unfamiliar with a courtroom full of strangers and make an adult victim feel more victimized.
Even more so for children.
The 13th Judicial District is partnering with the Children's Advocacy Center in Cookeville and several other organizations to bring a measure of comfort to those involved in the stressful experience of the legal process by becoming the second district in the state to use a courthouse dog.
The use of courthouse dogs can help bring about a major change in how we meet the emotional needs of all involved in the criminal justice system. Their calming presence promotes justice with compassion, the Courthouse Dogs website states.
District Attorney General Randy York has enthusiastically endorsed the program, as have Deputy District Attorney Gary McKenzie and Assistance District Attorneys Caroline Knight and Amanda Hunter Worley.
So has local Department of Children's Services workers and Cumberland County Sheriff Butch Burgess. Like the House of Hope, the goal is to assist crime victims and witnesses as they face legal proceedings.
"This is an incredible tool for us," said Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former Washington state prosecutor and Courthouse Dogs member. "The dog offers emotional support to everyone involved in the process."
O-Neill-Stephens and Celeste Walsen, a retired vetenarian from Edmonds, WA, were in Cumberland County last week to offer an introduction and local training for courthouse security officers, investigators, DCS workers and prosecutors.
With them came demonstration dog Molly B, a Labrador and golden retriever mix, who demonstrated a normal day of "working" in the courthouse.
CAC member Jennifer Wilkerson will be traveling soon to Florida to begin training with the dog that will be assigned permanently to the 13th Judicial District. Once trained, the dog comes with the training credentials and a liability insurance policy.
The primary goal of the trained courthouse dog is to assist crime victims, witnesses and others during various stages of legal proceedings such as child forensic interviews and trials. The dogs are under trained handlers and the dogs receive specialized training from the national Canine Companions for Independence.
They are also members of the Assistance Dogs International.
Laws allow a judge to set up and determine how a courtroom setting is used and the use of courthouse dogs lies with the discretion of the judge. Normally, the dog is placed inside a witness box, away from the view of jurors so that members of the panel charged with hearing evidence fairly are not influenced by the dog's presence.
The canines are not called therapy or comfort dogs — although they have undergone some of the same training — because to label the dogs as such could prejudice a jury against a defendant.
In addition, the dogs are available to defendants and their witnesses as well as prosecution witnesses.
Giving any witness access to the dog gives that witness a sense of security. "The dogs have the ability to help witnesses find the words when no one else could."
She illustrated the point by showing a Powerpoint presentation that included scenes of the dog serving probation violators, defendants in drug court as well as child rape victims.
McKenzie noted after the session that he wished such a dog had been available to assist child victims in recent Criminal Court cases prosecuted in Cumberland County. It can be quite intimidating for a child to walk into a room full of strangers and to have to testify to unpleasant things that happened to them.
The Washington state program became so successful that it has been adopted by many courtrooms in Canada, with the assistance of O'Neill-Stephens and Walsen.
In the U.S. there are courthouse dogs used in 44 Judicial Districts, and the only other courthouse dog used in Tennessee is in a judicial circuit west of Nashville.